Future Reflections Jan/ Feb/March 1985, Vol. 4 No. 1

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BLINDNESS AND TEACHING IN THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

by Adelmo Vigil

Reprinted from the NFB Spring/Summer, 1984 Issue of The Blind Educator. Original Title, "Teaching in The Elementary School."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Through the help of the NFB National Association of Blind Educators, Gwynne will be student teaching this fall, and plans to pursue certification as a teacher.

(Note: The following address was delivered on Thursday, April 12,1984, at the Western Regional Conference of the National Association of Blind Educators in Sacramento, California.)

It is a pleasure to be here this morning and be able to relate some of my experiences teaching in a public school classroom. I want to start off by telling you about my teacher training experience at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. The first question everybody asked me was whether I was planning to do my student teaching assignment at the school for the blind. When I said no, they asked how would I be able to teach in a regular classroom. I told them to let me get through school first and I would figure out ways of getting the job done.

I met a third grade teacher who believed in my ability to teach. I was able to work out my student teaching placement with him. I completed my student teaching in the spring of 1977 and decided to continue living in the Silver City area. I applied for a teaching position with the local district, but received no response. I contacted the personnel director who agreed to interview me but never got back to me to set up an interview. Finally, I went and saw the superintendent who told me that hiring decisions were made individually by each school principal. I began interviewing and learned that none of the principals in the district had ever been told of my application by the personnel department. At that time, I did not know of the existance of the National Federation of the Blind and so I went to a private attorney for help. He suggested that I take my case before the State Human Rights Commission. When the Human Rights Commission found that district had discriminated against me, the district decided to offer me a teaching position.

By that time the matter was settled, I had already accepted a position teaching Title I math in Shiprock, New Mexico. I stayed in this position for three years, but always wished I could get into teaching in a regular class. When I asked my principal about a change in assignment he asked me if I would be interested in teaching in an open space setting where four classes totaling 120 students were combined. I told him that I thought I might have trouble teaching in the open space, but still wanted very much to teach regular third grade. What do you suppose he did? The next year, my principal moved all third grade classes to the open space. Nevertheless, when an opening came up for a third grade teacher, I asked for a transfer even though it meant teaching in the open space.

It was hard in a way because even though I could control my kids, some of the other teachers had trouble controlling their kids which made it difficult to hear over the noise of the other kids and pencil sharpeners. I did not particularly enjoy the situation, but I enjoyed teaching third grade. I taught in the open space for a year and the following year transferred to another school where I have now been for the last three years teaching third grade in a regular setting. I have been teaching a total of seven years now and it has not always been easy, but I believe it is up to us to take on a job and pull our own load. We can not expect others to do our work for us, we have got to do it for ourselves.

Now let me relate to you a situation in which I have recently been involved concerning Gwynne Widhalm, a student at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska. Gwynne's university supervisor, Dr. Divney, would not let her student teach and sent her a letter outlining the numerous reasons why. As I read Dr. Divney's letter, I began to get mad because it was clear that Dr. Divney feels that a blind person is incapable of teaching. When discussing the possibility of assigning Gwynne to a second grade class, Dr. Divney stated, "Discipline would become even more difficult. As children become more adept at imitating voices, at changing chairs and seats, as active games are played on the playground, this monitoring and discipline would be extremely difficult when you depend on sound to identify a discipline problem in the room. "Dr. Divney's words show a complete lack of understanding about the nature of discipline. Discipline is not maintained by sight, but by the relationship a teacher has with his or her students. At the beginning of the year I will say to the kids, "In my classroom we go by my rules. If other teachers run their classes differently that is up to them." I ask the kids, "Do you want to be the best class in this school and if so are you willing to work at it?" As time goes on they begin believing in themselves and believing that they are the best class in the school. It does not matter whether anyone else believes they are the best class, they believe it and learn to work together and treat each other and me with respect. Learning to respect one another and work together is very important and is something too often overlooked by other teachers.

In her letter, Dr. Divney also stated, "Children love to test the teacher. It would be very easy for a child to cause a disturbance that was completely noiseless. Gwynne would not hear the discipline difficulty that was arising." What Dr. Divney is forgetting is that the blind teacher is in a room full of children who can and do report to the teacher if another student has matches and is planning to burn down the school. This type of relationship with your students is equally important for sighted teachers and blind teachers, since the sighted teacher cannot possibly be watching all children at all times. A teacher working with a reading group in the back of the room cannot be watching everything that is going on in the rest of the class. In my class, I assign students to serve as class leaders. Each week we change leaders. During an activity, if a student is talking the leader will write the student's name on the board and later I will discuss with the student why he or she was talking. My principal liked the way the leader system was working in my classroom and decided to expand the program schoolwide. Since third grade is the highest grade at my school, during recess the leader from each of the third grade classes assists the teacher on duty with monitoring the playground. The leaders also assist in the cafeteria which all the teachers find to be a great help. The system is good for the children. It makes them feel responsible and important.

Another area which Dr. Divney identified as being impossible for Gwynne to manage was the use of the blackboard. Dr. Divney stated, "Much of the time in the meeting was used in a discussion of the importance of blackboard work in the third grade. Many of the lessons, opening exercises, the mathematics, as well as handwriting is presented on the blackboard for children in the third grade. They work at the blackboard. It would be difficult for Gwynne to present material to the children using the medium of blackboard . . . It was mentioned in the course of the conversation that one third of the children learn visually . . . and one third of the children learn kinesthetically. If all lessons were presented auditorily. . .it would be to the advantage of one third of the children. Two-thirds of the children would not be grasping the material ..." Let us apply Dr. Divney's thinking another way. If a blind teacher can only teach through the auditory modality thereby excluding two-thirds of the class from learning, then is the sighted teacher only capable of teaching through the visual modality thereby also excluding two-thirds of the students from the learning process? If a teacher writes an assignment on the board is he or she not thereby excluding those children who learn by the auditory and kinesthetic modalities? What about the teacher who relies heavily on worksheets? A teacher at my school told me that she goes through 150-175 worksheets daily which figures out to seven or eight worksheets for each child each day. This is in addition to the students' workbooks. So what happens to the child who learns by hearing? What happens to the child who learns by doing?

In my classroom the emphasis is on the children learning to take responsibility for themselves. Children will live up to your expectations of them. I tell my children if they have a question they can come up and ask me, but they better not expect me to read the directions to them. I expect them to read the directions for themselves, not because I am blind, but because it is important for them to take that responsibility for themselves. Then if they need help understanding the directions, I will explain the directions to them.

Grading papers is another problem that Dr. Divney brought up. She said, "Grading papers would be a task that would need to be taken home and done by someone else at night. This means that when Gwynne brought the papers back to the schoolroom the next day, it would be very difficult for her to answer the questions the children would raise about the marks on their papers because someone else had marked the papers. Someone else had scored and graded them. So that Gwynne would have great difficulty answering the questions of the children and showing them what would be the correct procedure to follow on their written work, paper work, seat work." Again, Dr. Divney's comments only reflect her deep-seated negative attitudes toward blindness. Before I hand back a student's paper, I go through it to see where the student is having problems. For example, in math, I note whether the student is having trouble remembering to carry or remembering to add in the number carried. When I hand back papers, I will let a student know that he or she is having trouble so that I can get with the student later and work with him or her on solving the problem. I have been using this system successfully for seven years. I do not know why Dr. Divney thinks a blind teacher would not be able to explain a problem to a student for the material that the blind teacher has taught. In fact, it is even better if the child is able to go through and analyze his or her own mistakes rather than always having the teacher explain the problem to the child.

Then Dr. Divney brought up the issue of record keeping. She said, "To keep a teacher's grade book requires marking in very small squares. It would be extremely difficult for Gwynne to keep the type of grade and attendance book that is routinely asked of teachers to keep." Dr. Divney's use of the word routinely lends insight into her attitudes toward teaching. To Dr. Divney there is no room for different styles among teachers, there is only one way to carry out each duty. If my district were to require me to maintain a regular grade book then I would find a way to get that done. The way I get the job done is nobody's concern by my own. As long as I can fulfill the requirements of my district then that is all that is important.

Supervision of my children out of the classroom is not a problem. Dr. Divney expressed concern about Gwynne supervising children on the playground. As I said earlier, this is another situation where I use the class leaders to help with the monitoring. Sometimes when my kids finish their work I will take them outside to play ball. I am not afraid that they will hurt themselves and besides if a student does get hurt, a sighted teacher might see the accident happen, but that does not mean the teacher would be able to prevent the accident.

I feel that the only way to improve the situation of negative attitudes toward blind teachers such as those of Dr. Divney is for more blind people to enter the teaching profession. Through the National Federation of the Blind and its division of the National Association of Blind Educators we can work together to eliminate discrimination toward blind teachers.

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